MILWAUKEE – A bullpen that looked like it might be the strength of the Cubs when the season opened has gone from bad to worse against the worst hitting team in the league.
In fact, it then went from worse to laughable by the end of Saturday’s 12-4 loss when catcher David Ross took over to befuddle the Brewers’ order with mid-70s “heat.”
One night after the back-end power guys in the Cubs bullpen turned a big lead into a one-run win, the middle underbelly of the pen – in particular Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke and Jason Motte – turned a close game into a rout.
“We really have to get our bullpen in order. Guys are just not pitching up to their abilities,” manager Joe Maddon said.
And that was Friday night.
Compounding the slumping relief corps’ issues Saturday was Travis Wood’s inability to pitch a clean inning after the first, lasting just four innings, trailing 6-4.
Jackson (walk, walk, double) and Coke (walk, sacrifice fly, grounder, homer) then opened the floodgates.
“Even if your bullpen’s underperforming, you’re not going to win without good bullpen, so you have to continue to put them in the spot where they’re going to be successful,” Maddon said. “You don’t run away from that.
“It’s like a good shooter in basketball. You don’t want him to stop shooting. You’ve got to keep shooting.”
Fill in your own punch line there.
After going 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 58 2/3 innings through 19 games this season, the bullpen is 0-3 with a 8.42 ERA in 31 over the last 10 games – with higher walk and hit rates and blowing two of three save chances.
The Cubs responded early in the week by activating 2014 workhorse Justin Grimm from the disabled list and adding recently re-acquired lefty James Russell from AAA Iowa in a series of roster moves that ultimately resulted in Maddon having an extra (eighth) arm in the bullpen.
But the struggles have continued, and of more recent concern are those of setup ace Pedro Strop – who didn’t allow a run in his first 12 appearances but has given up six on four walks and seven hits in his last four outings.
Strop is tied for the major league lead in appearances with 16 (a pace that would lead to 93 over a full season).
After pitching five of eight days, including a stretch of three in four this week, he admitted on Friday night, “My fastball doesn’t have that life that I need, and we’re working on it.”
Maddon, who said the early pace was a function of game situations and would naturally lessen, said of Strop’s fastball “life”:
“I’m not worried, because the [velocity] numbers are the same,” he said. “He might be feeling something right now, but the numbers are the same.”
The overall numbers for the pen, especially during this St. Louis-Milwaukee trip, are not so good, however they’re measured.
Of the eight relievers used the last two nights, only Russell and – believe it or not – Ross, did not have a run cross the plate on their watch.
How the Cubs solve the bullpen issues, and whether they have enough depth between the DL (Neil Ramirez) and the minors (Brian Schlitter, Blake Cooper), could be as big a key as any home run binge or Jon Lester winning streak.
“We’re not going anywhere without a bullpen being very dominant, actually,” Maddon said. “You have to have a dominant bullpen to win 90-plus games, and that’s our goal.